Embracing new possibilities: Ventura tourism sees X Games boost, SB and SLO counties see positive trends
Summer is a time of great expectations for the tri-counties. As people look to venture out and do things near the beach, near the mountains and anything else in between, the Central Coast has three counties that can fulfill those needs.
While it might have been a late start for some, all saw some big highlights.
But, probably the biggest was Ventura playing host to the return of the X Games — a tournament of action sports that did a lot more than just bring excitement to Ventura — it gave the region a national stage presence and brought people up and down the state to experience the city of good fortune and all the surrounding cities along the county.
“We are actually seeing a really healthy summer and we credit that to all the local events that take place, but the X Games, I think, really elevated us to another level,” Marlyss Auster, CEO of Ventura Visitors and Convention Bureau, told the Business Times.
Auster noted that in 2019, the occupancy rate of rental units was at about 70%, with the number hitting 69% last year.
That number hit closer to 80% this summer, Auster said, because athletes and many others stayed in town to prepare for the X Games.
“There were just a lot of firsts this summer with the X Games and a lot of community engagement,” Auster said.
“Everybody committed to doing their part and I am grateful for that.”
The economic impact of the X Games is still being studied, with a report to come out in October, Auster said.
Julie Madsen, a communications coordinator at Ventura Visitors, said that the last time the summer X Games were held in person in 2019 in Minneapolis, the event brought in $2 million in economic impact.
“We saw Saturday sell out completely, the first time that ever happened in X Games history and every person we talked to, athletes, locals, they were stoked about being here,” Madsen said.
In a similar fashion, Auster said one of the key events still to take place this summer is another sporting event — The Throw Down Cornhole Festival, a 1,280-team cornhole tournament with $350,000 in prize money.
It is the largest cornhole tournament in the world, with the year’s event being hosted at the Ventura County Fairgrounds Aug. 25 through Aug. 27.
“There is a team coming from every single state in the U.S. to come and compete here to win that title and there are significant purses that they can win so the excitement level here is high,” Auster said.
Both Auster and Madsen said there has not been official word on if the X Games would be returning again, but both agreed they would love to see the games return to the region.
“Ventura has a rich history of skateboarding, surfing, all that fits into our culture and so the X Games match what we represent and we would love to have that back,” Madsen said.
Santa Barbara County saw its summer start a little late this year, mainly because for the first few weeks the skies — normally sunny and cheery — were filled with gloomy clouds.
And with even gloomier forecasts and stronger winds coming due to El Niño, the hospitality industry is preparing for those headwinds, Kathy Janega-Dykes, the president and CEO of Visit Santa Barbara, told the Business Times via email.
She said that from January 2019 through July 2019, there were 820,000 hotel rooms occupied on the South Coast, with a hotel vacancy rate of 27%.
During the same time last year, there were 790,000 hotel rooms occupied on the South Coast, and the vacancy rate remained at 27%.
However, from January 2023 through July 2023, the region’s vacancy rate increased to 32% and only 750,000 hotel rooms were occupied on the South Coast.
“We have also seen that regional hotel rates have already fallen by 10% from last year, even as operating expenses rise. Business travel never regained its full potential after the COVID-19 pandemic, and arrivals from key international markets are down nationwide compared to 2019,” she said.
Chris Cline, the general manager of Hotel Santa Barbara, confirmed that the vacancy rate at hotels has been higher this summer.
“It’s hard to pinpoint any one thing,” he told the Business Times.
“There are more options to visit since last year, I am sure that plays a role and the weather has definitely impacted our market.”
Still, there are some encouraging trends. Janega-Dykes said holiday weekend hotel bookings remain strong, which translates to additional business for Santa Barbara’s restaurants, attractions and tour companies.
They expect that trend to continue for the upcoming three-day weekends as well.
“I am still very bullish on Santa Barbara as a destination itself,” Cline said.
“Outside factors may be affecting us right now, but we still have a gorgeous place to visit, that has not changed.”
San Luis Obispo County saw a record-breaking $2.1 billion in direct travel spending impact in 2022 and with new flight options coming to the county’s regional airport each year, the potential of more tourism dollars grows stronger.
In a press release, CEO of Visit SLO CAL Chuck Davison said that tourism is the number two economic driver in the region, second to only agriculture.
“Travel impacts every sector of business and supports local economies across the globe, including right here in SLO CAL,” he said.
As a result, San Luis Obispo has invested in making sure people know about the region and come and visit.
“‘We are certainly seeing an increased appetite for travel to SLO CAL,” Trevor Lynch, the director of marketing at Visit SLO CAL, told the Business Times.
“Our primary drive markets continue to see growth in the number of arrivals, and our airline partners are adding both new routes and additional seats to existing routes in and out of SBP.”
In 2022, SLO County welcomed 7.47 million visitors.
“We are cautiously optimistic that 2023 will be one of the strongest years on record for tourism spend in SLO CAL,” Lynch said.